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Saved by the Stage

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Jesse Shira shares his story of overcoming depression by discovering his passion for theater and magic.

By Jesse Shira – Collegiate Staff

To paraphrase the classic opening line from Martin Scorsese’s “Goodfellas,” as far back as I can remember, I’ve always wanted to be an entertainer. Some of my earliest memories are me goofing around and performing for my family, my friends, babysitters, basically anybody I could get to watch. I would put on magic shows in my front yard, dance around my living room, and sing in the school choir. But my favorite was always acting on stage. Whether it was in the church Christmas and Easter pageants, classroom skits, or just dressing up and reenacting Disney movies with my older sister, Gracey, acting was my passion.

But as time went on, and I grew up, I was finding I had less and less time to act. People would tell me “You shouldn’t waste your time with performing,” and “You’ll never get a job and be stuck in your parent’s’ basement,” or the classic, “Straight guys don’t do theatre.” These words still hurt today, but nothing is worse than hearing them as a kid from adults I looked up to. And like most kids, I’d listen.

As I kept aging, I’d perform less and less and I’d begin to hate my life more and more. I was sinking into a deep, depressed state. When I started high school my family moved to Byron Center and I wasn’t able to see all my old friends that often.

I was really nervous as I began my freshman year. I wasn’t sure what electives to pick. Should I stick to things I knew, or try something different? I needed an art credit and saw “Theater Arts” in the electives. Needless to say, I took the class. I would get to act for an hour a day, five days a week and that would be great. But honestly, school still sucked. Theater arts was in the morning, and each class after that just dragged on and on. I was still really miserable at school and the one hour of happiness couldn’t outweigh having close to no friends and hating everything about all my other classes.

By the 10th grade my life felt equivalent to hell. I just wanted to drop out. I didn’t have theater anymore and it was escalating to the point where I’d just give up and lounge around my house. I’d skip school and sit around in the dark all day watching TV, trying to escape to a happier life where all problems can be solved in 22 minutes plus commercials.

I still did magic, but I lost the joy in it. I would win contests, but I didn’t get the same sense of accomplishment when I transported someone’s signed card to an impossible location. Nor did I take pride in changing a handful of sugar into a jolly rancher. And I nearly gave it up after doing it for 10 years. The only reason I continued was to not let down my Grandpa and Uncle, who are both magicians.

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Nathan Bidwell | The Collegiate Live

It came to a point where my depression was consuming everything, and I started seeing a therapist. He listened to my problems, and saw through my depression and could sense the happiness when I reminisced about performing. He encouraged me to not drop out, and to take a chance on my junior year.

When I picked my electives, I decided to retake theater arts. We started the first day in class and we had to interview and introduce a classmate to the rest of the class. I decided to go all out. I took a magician’s appearing cane out of my backpack, along with a ball of tinfoil I put on the end of a pencil to make a prop microphone and did the introduction as some sort of cross between a carnie and Bob Barker. The class loved it. They laughed, they applauded, and I got an A. I was already starting to feel better about this school year.

As with every class there is a clique of cool kids. The second day of class I got invited to sit with them. They complimented me on the previous day’s work and asked if I was planning on auditioning for the play. I thought about it in the past, but I just never had the confidence to do it in other years. But they convinced me to do it.

I went in to auditions super nervous, even though I researched the play, “Snow Angel,” the characters, and privately rehearsed the audition scenes. I came in and saw my new friends from class and talked with them. We talked about who we were auditioning for and who we thought would be cast in what roles. Then in walked Mr. Anglin, the director. He welcomed everyone to auditions, gave an overview on the process, and we began.

I could drag this on further, but I’ll end the suspense. I was cast! And over the two and a half months of rehearsals, I grew closer with everyone in the cast. We became a big, happy family. And even after “Snow Angel” ended, we remained close. I’d have them over at least once a week and we’d laugh, live, and learn.

“Snow Angel” began the best two years of my life. If it wasn’t for that show, and for meeting all the new friends it brought me, I probably wouldn’t have lived through high school. I know I never would have began working in video production, I never would have been the youngest person to host the Hocus Pocus Party, I never would have began acting and directing in films, and I never would be the first in my family to go to college.

I’d like to thank everyone who supported me and helped me get to where I am today. My directors Andrew Anglin, Jason Marlett, Caleb F. Jenkins, and Derek Niemchick. My therapist Dr. Mike, my co-workers at BCTV, everyone in the Grand Rapids magic club. My teachers Andrew Anglin (again), Julie VanderLaan, and Greg Reinstein, without you three I couldn’t have finished high school. And lastly, my family and all of those who I’ve had the privilege of calling friend. I love you all.

If there’s anyone out there reading this feeling depressed and unappreciated, I urge you to get help. Try something new. Find your passion. Live through the bad times, and know something better is always around the corner.